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Column 535modern, internationally competitive economy."
I could not agree more. I come from the highly competitive textile industry in Scotland, which has passed through incredibly difficult times because of competition from low-wage countries in the far east, where products can be produced significantly cheaper. The Scottish industry had to produce something different. As time passes, British manufacturing industry must ensure that it produces quality products manufactured by skilled operatives, using the latest technology. It is imperative to provide the facilities that will allow youngsters to be trained in the proper skills and technology that industry requires.
I repeat that it is a question not only of costs but of producing a premium product that can command a premium price. Scotland in particular has the skills. Locate in Scotland has been incredibly successful in attracting investment because of the skills available there. If those skills are to be nurtured to make employment potential even greater, we must create a training environment such as never before.
Since the establishment of Scottish Enterprise and local enterprise companies, training opportunities for 16 and 17-year-olds have increased significantly with local interpretation.
Mrs. Ewing : Evidence taken by the Employment Select Committee on 21 October 1992 showed that 7,946 young people in the youth training guarantee group in Scotland were without a training place. Does the hon. Gentleman think that is progress ?
Mr. Kynoch : Perhaps the hon. Lady will wait to hear my further remarks about training. I would refer to her constituency in particular, but, to be fair, her LEC bridges both Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. I shall refer to the benefits of the skill seekers operation pioneered by Grampian Enterprise. Some of the problems of the YTS scheme have been addressed by the skill seekers scheme. The Government have tried to introduce the right environment. They should not interfere and coerce industry to improve training, but cajole it into providing opportunities for 16 and 17-year-olds.
Local enterprise companies face the difficulty that much of business is reluctant to train. That is sad--but in recessionary times, short-sighted companies cut back and do not provide training places. It is important to place greater emphasis on youth training and I welcome Government expenditure in that direction. Expenditure on training throughout the United Kingdom in 1993-94 totalled £844 million and it will remain at approximately the same level in 1994-95--despite the fact that the number of 16 and 17-year-olds is falling and a higher proportion are remaining in further education. In Scotland, the youth training and skill seekers budget totalled £86.5 million in 1993-94 and is forecast to increase to £93.5 million in 1994-95. We are seeing greater Government commitment to better training.
Grampian Enterprise pioneered skill seekers and training credits. In 1990, the Department of Employment offered the then Training Agency area offices the opportunity, in the run-up to the establishment of LECs, to pilot a system of training credits. Grampian Enterprise seized that opportunity, realising that there could be major
Column 536benefits compared to the youth training to which the hon. Member for Moray referred. Youth training relied heavily on non-employed placement and disestablished the normal relationship between the employer and young employee. In Grampian, that resulted in a drop-out rate higher than 40 per cent.
Most young people leaving YT did so to enter a real job rather than the indoctrinated job that YT offered, so that they would have something of a future. They entered that job without substantial training, which was most unfortunate. With skill seekers, Grampian's primary objective was to re- establish the principle of real jobs with real training. Since 1991, the turnover of 16 and 17-year-olds in training has significantly improved.
When Grampian ended the YT scheme, there were 1,900 people in training. Only 32 per cent. of them had employed status, and those working towards a vocational qualification accounted for 50 per cent. The number of leavers achieving a vocational qualification was pitifully low, at 8 per cent.
Six hundred employers contracted to operate youth training schemes. The company that I operated took YTS youngsters and employed every one. We used it as a pilot skill seekers scheme. Having put those young people through training, we felt that we could then offer them jobs. Almost all of them accepted positions with the company. After three years of operating skill seekers in Grampian, almost 4, 000 young people are in training compared with 1,900 on 1 April 1991--of which 95 per cent. are employed. Ninety-five per cent. are working towards a vocational qualification and 54 per cent. of leavers achieve a qualification. The number of employers contracted to the scheme is 2,200, compared with 600 before. There is much greater co- operation with local industry. [ Interruption. ] I hear sedentary suggestions that my comments may be having a negative effect on some people. I am sure that, if they are having any effect, they are probably making youngsters--wherever they may be listening--rush off to Grampian Enterprise to take advantage of its skill seekers scheme.
I mentioned the number of trainees on that scheme who were aiming for recognised vocational qualifications. Many are seeking such qualifications at level 3--craft level--or above. The figures for YT are not currently available, but we know that more than twice as many trainees are now aiming for higher-level qualifications.
I believe that Government intervention--if we are to call it that--in the youth labour market is helping employers to train young employees and direct them towards recognised vocational qualifications, thus enhancing the skills pool. The Government have provided an opportunity for all youngsters to go out and better themselves, preparing themselves more effectively for the outside world with better skills and better equipment to provide British industry with higher-quality, improved products and more efficiency--thus bringing about a better economy, a better Britain and a better Scotland. 8.59 pm
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) for opening a debate on a subject in which I have been very interested for a long time. I am sorry that her speech had to include the ritualistic attack on the Labour party, but I
Column 537suppose that she can hardly refrain from that. Among other things, there was also the usual build-up in Scotland, using radio, television and other parts of the media to attack Labour. I find that sad : I should have thought that the obvious culprit responsible for the plight of 16 and 17-year-olds was the Tory party. It is rather pathetic that the hon. Lady aimed so much of her fire in the wrong direction.
However, I have no interest in bandying words with the nationalists tonight, because I know that the guilty people are the Government. I also know that, if ever there was an issue that demonstrated the silliness of nationalism in the United Kingdom, it is this one. The tragedy is that many of the young people who are sleeping rough in England's towns and cities-- indeed, within a few hundred yards of where we are now--are Scots, people from our constituencies. Those young people have enough going against them ; making them foreigners in the cities whither they have been cast out is surely an additional folly.
The hon. Gentleman was correct about one thing, however : he has been interested in this issue for a number of years. In his Adjournment debate in 1988, he said :
"The only urgent answer is to restore income support to youngsters who do not have jobs or YTS places".--[ Official Report , 5 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 144.]
When did he stop believing that that was the only urgent answer ?
Mr. Wilson : I was not attacking the hon. Gentleman's party ; I was attacking the concept of turning young Scottish people into foreigners in this city. That is not an attack on a political party. If the hon. Gentleman's party stands for that, it is his party's problem, but it does no favours to the young people whom we are discussing.
I did not use my Adjournment debate to attack any minority party ; indeed, I was pleased to allow Mr. Jim Sillars, then Member of Parliament for Glasgow, Govan, a few minutes in which to speak. To his credit, he did not use that time to attack the Labour party ; he attacked the Tories. Perhaps, as someone looking for votes in west central Scotland, he had a better idea of where the blame lay than the current members of the Scottish National party.
I do not believe that the past should be swept away. I believe that we owe the young people who have suffered under the current legislation more than that. We cannot simply move on, saying that things have changed and citing the reforms to which the Minister referred. In 1988, largely as a result of the efforts of a then junior social security Minister--the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)--what I described then as an evil piece of legislation was introduced. That legislation withdrew the right to benefit from 16 and 17-year-olds. The Government did that without thinking of the human consequences and the damage that would be done to young people.
I believe that that legislation should be permanently hung around the Prime Minister's neck. He was the
Column 538Minister who was primarily responsible for it, and for the vast reservoir of human damage--indeed, the ending of life- -that resulted from it. The Prime Minister did that on his way up the greasy pole ; he should never be allowed to forget that he was responsible for that damage.
Mr. Kynoch : The hon. Gentleman seems to be neglecting all the safety net provisions that my hon. Friend the Minister outlined earlier. He is speaking as though the safety net was done away with, but it was not.
In my Adjournment debate in 1988, the Minister who replied was the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott), who has moved on to kicking the crutches away from the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. He went through the litany of justifications for the measure. He said :
"I can think of nothing more debilitating for the mass of youngsters leaving education and entering the adult world than to have automatically to depend on state benefits."
I can think of something more debilitating : to leave young people without a job, without a training place and without a penny of legal income. That is what the Government did. He went on to say : "the offer of a YTS place is guaranteed."
That was a falsehood then and, to a lesser extent, it is a falsehood now.
The Minister continued :
"In the 12 weeks since the new provisions took effect, 1,688 applications under the severe hardship provision have been received. In 1,139 cases, a direction resulted and in 549 a direction was refused."--[ Official Report , 5 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 147-48.]
The Minister said tonight that 11,000 severe hardship applications are made each month, 90 per cent. of which are accepted. But in the crucial early months and years of the legislation, about 500 applications a month were lodged. Five hundred people got through the hoops to make the applications, a third of which were disallowed. That prevailed for some two or three years, a little while before the present Minister took up his job, and no doubt he has made some useful changes.
That is where my description of the legislation as evil is justified. In those years, tens of thousands of young people were recklessly cast aside without a job, without a training place, without a pretence that the guarantee would be fulfilled and without the severe hardship allowance, to which at least many of them are now entitled. The measure was one of the cruellest and most despicable acts of the Government under Baroness Thatcher, but we should never forget the role of the present Prime Minister.
What brought about the change ? Things were so bad, the human debris that was created was so extreme, that the Department of Social Security felt obliged to commission a survey from MORI, which drew some remarkable conclusions and which bear out what I have said. MORI conducted a survey of 500 youngsters, a self-selecting group because they had found their way into social security offices in the first place. The survey showed that 500 destitute youngsters had claimed for discretionary severe hardship payment. Almost half of them had slept rough. One in five had been sexually abused before leaving home. One in three of the boys had stolen or begged to obtain money. One in six was literally penniless when arriving at a DSS office, usually directed there by charities. That is what Conservative Members voted for in 1988. That is the scheme that the Prime Minister conceived and it had to be sorted out because of the wreckage that it had created.
Mr. Wilson : I shall answer that question by referring to the original purpose of the measure. It was never about saving money because the money involved was not large, and it is not large now. It is a diversion to talk about the cost of restoring this benefit. There are three potential explanations showing why this was done in the first place : first, it would save money, which is a relatively unimportant argument ; secondly, there were competing philosophies of what should happen to 16 and 17-year-olds, and whether they should be in the benefits system ; and, thirdly--this was the major argument--with a stroke of the pen, the Government got all the 16 and 17-year-olds off the unemployment statistics. That is what they were doing in 1988 with the social security legislation. In one blow, they got 100,000 people off the unemployment statistics by the cruellest of logic.
As we all know, they are not unemployment statistics. They contain only those who are unemployed and eligible to claim benefit. If, by definition, we say that 16 and 17-year-olds are not eligible to claim benefit, no 16 or 17-year-olds show in the unemployment statistics. That is what the legislation was primarily about in 1988. To this day, I regard that as the biggest insult to 16 and 17-year-olds--those who still have no job, no benefit and no training place, and who are not even considered to have the human worth in this society to be counted in the unemployment statistics. Yet that is what was done, and it is one of the ways in which the unemployment statistics have been reduced. There is an army of 100,000 16 and 17-year-olds out there who have none of those things and who do not even count as an unemployment statistic.
I say this to any journalist who may hear this debate and who covers the subject of unemployment statistics : never again talk about the number of unemployed ; talk about the number out of work and claiming benefit. As soon as one accepts the Tory terminology, one wipes the 100,000 16 and 17- year-olds from the face of the earth. That is what the social security legislation was about.
Labour will not fiddle the unemployment statistics. We will not leave anyone destitute in the streets. We will fulfil a guarantee--replacing the bogus guarantee that was given by the Government either to give proper training to young people or to make one of the other provisions available to them. I shall ask the Minister a direct question.
Things have moved on a great deal. Instead of 500 applications a month for severe hardship, a third of which were refused, the Minister proudly--and with some reason for that pride--told us that there are now 11,000 applications a month, of which 90 per cent. are accepted. As the Minister was not here, I shall repeat that the gap between the two statistics is two thirds of 500 and 90 per cent. of 11,000. That is the difference between the evil of what was done between 1980 and 1991 and the improved system which now functions. To that extent, the Minister is due congratulations. If he had anything to do with the earlier regime, he is due none. There has therefore been some change in that direction.
Column 540I shall ask the Minister a direct question : if roughly 10,000 youngsters a week are, to all intents and purposes, getting benefits through the system, do they count in the unemployment statistics ? Are they regarded as unemployed people who are eligible to claim benefit ? Is severe hardship allowance a benefit for that purpose ? I am sure that the answers would be interesting. If not, it is simply another sleight of hand to keep them off the unemployment statistics.
I have some sympathy with the argument that it is not the best thing for young people to go straight on to benefit. I should prefer it if they went into training places or jobs. I invite Tory Members to come to my constituency and see the training centre at Moorpark house at Kilbirnie which is run by Cunninghame district council, where first-class training is given. It is not true to say--and no hon. Member has said it tonight--that all training is third rate or is exempt from health and safety or anything else. Some training is third rate, but training is good where proper resources are put in. That is the best thing for 16 and 17-year-olds--that or real jobs. But what must be in place is a real safety net for every 16 and 17-year-old who has neither.
Mr. Kynoch : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he realise that skill seekers, which was pioneered in Grampian and to which I referred, will be available throughout the local enterprise company structure in 1995 ?
Mr. Wilson : I have discussed the question of skill seekers with Ayrshire Enterprise. The scheme has some worth, as many of the schemes and many of the people who are trying to implement them have worth. No one is denigrating training. We are saying that we should have more and better training and stop the pretence that everyone already has access to training.
I shall finish by referring to the statistics for my constituency. I obtained today the Scottish Office careers service management returns for my constituency. At the Ardrossan office, 59 youngsters are in the guarantee and are registered for youth training. Twenty of them are due an offer of a place which starts immediately and do not have one. At the Irvine office, which covers the Garnock valley, 80 youngsters are in the guarantee and registered for youth training. Thirteen are due a place immediately and do not have it. In Ayrshire as a whole, which includes the constituency of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), 335 youngsters are in the guarantee and eligible for a place and 111 do not have a place. That accords closely with the figures for Scotland which my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) quoted.
However, the argument is not about numbers. If one innocent youngster since 1988 under the legislation has been offered the guarantee of a youth training place and then denied it, was not given the financial support and was put in the position described in the MORI survey, it was an offence against the House and against humane government.
Yes, there have been improvements, but the scheme is based on a flawed concept. If there is a guarantee, everyone should have a place. If there is not a guarantee, let us hear it honestly tonight and let us create the missing thousands of places. The fact that so many youngsters have suffered
Column 541under the scheme should be acknowledged historically. A Labour Government will fulfil that guarantee and no one will be left destitute.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I do not care if the nationalists attack the Labour party until they are blue in the face. It does not seem to do them a great deal of good. People in Scotland and the rest of Britain --it is a British issue--understand that Labour will not leave young people in that position. There will be a guarantee. No one will be left destitute. There will be good training, real jobs and a genuine safety net. That is what Labour offers and I am proud to offer it. The historical judgment of what was done in 1988 by this Government and this Prime Minister to that generation of young people should never be forgotten.
Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) : It disappoints me to find so few Members in the Chamber tonight. Representatives of the Scottish National party are here, although only in the latter stages of the debate have they managed to bring in all the SNP Members. There are no Plaid Cymru Members present. There are no Ulster Unionist, Democratic Unionist or Social Democratic and Labour party Members. Only three socialist Members have been present during the debate at any one time. There are no Liberals in the Chamber. Perhaps that reflects the words of the motion and suggests that it was defeated even before it got off the ground and even before the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) rose to her feet to advance the argument.
In recognising that people felt that it was not worth while coming to the Chamber for the debate and despite the passionate words, to which I well relate in some respects, of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), I suggest that if we went back to the past we would do no favours to the 16 and 17-year-olds. As the hon. Member for Moray said, there is something wrong about a system which allows idle hands. It creates a dead- end society. There is something fundamentally wrong with allowing 16 and 17 -year-olds to lie in their beds and expect the state to pass cash to them. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North suggested that the 1988 legislation took 100,000 young people off the unemployment lists. I dispute the figures that he used earlier. My contacts in the enterprise companies, whether in the north or south of Scotland assure me that they can guarantee places for every youngster who comes to them. No youngsters are turned away.
Given the words of the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, if a youngster were turned away with no place, the Government guarantee and the contract would be broken at that point and the youngster should be entitled to benefits. If they want to work, but cannot, that is a different matter, but that is not the case. Youth training, in whatever guise, instils discipline and interest in youngsters. I fully appreciate that it is not all top class, but it is worth while because of the great range of opportunities offered to young people throughout the country by people who have put much effort into training initiatives.
Yesterday, a question was asked in the House about the opportunities for engineering apprenticeships in Scotland--they are still alive and kicking. One company in my constituency Aviall, which maintains aeroplane jet
Column 542engines, is recruiting more and more engineering apprentices every year. They are highly skilled and the apprenticeships highly valued. When I listen to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) and other Opposition Members, I wonder how many of them had spent time in a workshop, a factory or on the industrial scene. Many of them seem to come straight from education to this place and they miss out. I must inform the hon. Member for Fife, Central--despite the fact that he is not here at present--that his comments on safety are not recognisable, when one takes into consideration the role of health and safety inspectorates in the modern industrial world. Young people, in particular, are guarded within the United Kingdom workplace. Ill betide any employer who contravenes the United Kingdom's health and safety regulations.
To return to Aviall and the apprenticeships that it is offering, 80 per cent. of its apprentices achieve higher national standard. That is not something to hang our heads in shame about when we discuss youth training. It was not achieved in the past and it offers much for the future. It says a lot, not merely about the training skills and education facilities available, but about the quality of our young people.
As I recognise that there is only limited time, I shall refer briefly to youth training. Back in the early days, when youth training schemes first started, I took on such a scheme. Not all the youngsters involved gained employment with the company that I represented, but they all certainly gained work experience and moved on to other workplaces. About 75 per cent. of them achieved jobs, and that was on what was considered to be an underrated youth training scheme.
Today, we have moved much further forward. Huge numbers of youngsters go into higher education in Scotland and that, in itself, is a tribute to the facilities that the Government have put on offer.
Earlier we heard about student grants and students' difficulties. If we analyse what happens in other European countries, we recognise that our young people are not all that badly done by.
I shall mention one point regarding the speech of the hon. Member for Fife, Central. He said that there was a suggestion that Conservative Members believed that young people did not want to work. Quite honesty, that is totally untrue. Conservatives believe that people should use their resources to the maximum, and that there is no more important resource in this country than our young people. Conservatives desire to put them to work.
It is all right for Opposition Members to come out with woolly words, saying that we need to give youngsters real jobs. The Government have created employment opportunities in this country and, while employment is falling in every country across Europe, it is rising in this country. That is important, and it offers hope to our young people.
The Scottish National party motion is a total waste of time, and the absence of hon. Members from the Chamber is recognition that it makes a valueless contribution to the debate. I urge my hon. Friends to reject the motion.
Column 5439.25 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : I shall try to answer the final comment of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie). He was self- contradicting, as that was not how he started his speech. The Scottish National party took this subject matter for our supply day debate this evening for three main reasons. The first was that it is a hugely important issue in its own right, and the fact that the Chamber is not stuffed to the gunnels is more of a comment on hon. Members than it is on either the issue or the motion. If we were to apply "Gallie's law" to the various subjects that are talked about in the Chamber, we would rapidly draw the conclusion that most hon. Members do not believe that any Scottish subject is worth while on any occasion. The Government Benches are seldom full when we debate a Scottish issue.
The second reason why we chose the subject--I admit it openly--was that we wanted to tease out some of the neanderthal attitudes towards young people that have been displayed in the speeches of the hon. Member for Ayr and other Government Members. Their idea is that if people were entitled to benefit, they would somehow be tempted away from training places or the hope of career, that they would want to lie in their beds all day if they got benefit and that they would not have an incentive to get out in the big wide world. [Interruption.] Those phrases have come up during the debate.
The hon. Member for Ayr said that he resented the impression given by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) that the idea among Conservative Members was that young people did not want to work. What other impressions can there be if the underlying argument of those who oppose the motion is that if young people are entitled to benefit, they will not go on a training scheme and will not go out to start a career ?
Mr. Gallie : I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that his assumption is totally wrong. Conservatives have been providing training opportunities that will give value to youngsters in the years ahead. We want to ensure that youngsters do not grow up with the dependency tendency that is so often encouraged by socialists and by the hon. Gentleman. The opportunities given to youngsters these days demonstrate that we value youngsters and that we are attempting to achieve the best from them.
Mr. Salmond : Even the hon. Gentleman's interventions are self- contradicting. That is exactly the point. The argument that underlies his attitude is that somehow if people were entitled to the princely sum of £27 a week of automatic benefit, they would veer away from a training course or a future career. That is a remarkable comment on the Conservative party's attitude towards young Scots and to young people elsewhere.
The third reason why we chose this subject for the debate--again, I openly admit it--was to try to tempt some firm commitment from the Labour party, but I am afraid that the debate has failed on that. There should be a firm commitment on that issue. I wish that the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) had been able to give tonight the same commitment that he managed to give as a Back-Bench Member in 1988. It is entirely legitimate for one party to ask another what commitment underpins its attitude, if anything, and what underpins its policy, if anything.
When I was preparing for this debate in the Library, my
Column 544musings were interrupted at various times by the stamping of feet from above. I was informed by an aggrieved librarian that that was the typical antics of the 1922 Committee at its end-of-term bash. I thought that the only thing that could possibly provoke such unanimity from the 1922 Committee was the resignation of the Prime Minister, but, no, apparently the Prime Minister did not resign this evening.
Two things struck me about that enthusiastic foot stamping. First that, obviously, Rosyth had not been raised as an issue at that meeting--or perhaps Scottish Conservatives were elsewhere. Secondly, no one in that end -of-term rally could have reminded the Prime Minister that he was the Minister who withdrew benefits from youngsters in 1988. It is this Prime Minister who made one of the most disgraceful interventions during the European election campaign, when he argued that there should be a criminal offence of "aggressive begging". My party and the other Opposition parties believe that if any criminal offence was committed, it was committed by those Tory pickpockets who removed benefit from young people. That is the offence, not the consequences of it that we see, with so many youngsters on the streets in Scotland and elsewhere.
The heart of the debate falls into two parts. First, the Minister failed to give a satisfactory answer to my repeated intervention asking for his explanation of the Shelter estimate that, last year, up to 5,000 youngsters in Scotland slept rough at some time. That is related to a number of factors--for example, housing provision. One quarter of homeless applications come from young single people aged between 16 and 24. More than 10,000 young people applied as homeless to district and island councils in Scotland in the previous financial year. Of those, only 3,000 were deemed to be in priority need and, of them, just 1,900 secured permanent accommodation. There is simply not enough emergency accommodation in Scotland, because only one in five of young people who apply for it is admitted. It has also been revealed that 45 per cent. of those staying in such accommodation had slept rough at some time. That is the basis for the Shelter estimate that up to 5,000 youngsters in Scotland slept rough at some time last year was reached.
The Minister said that there was a variety of reasons for that appalling statistic. I suggest that the reason that up to 5,000 young people slept rough in Scotland last year is that those young people had no houses, no jobs, no available training and, in many cases, no hope whatsoever. As the Minister and his Scottish colleagues bear the burden of the responsibility for the inter-reaction of housing provision and benefit, would it not be reasonable to acknowledge that, if 5,000 youngsters are sleeping rough in Scotland, the system for which the Minister claims so much credit is not working in practice on the streets of Scotland ?
The second issue at the heart of the debate is whether a discretionary or universal scheme provides sufficient protection. There has been a massive growth in the number of people applying for, and getting, severe hardship payments in the 16 to 17-year-old category. However, that payment was never envisaged as a mainstream provision for such significant numbers. It has been used to mop up the effects of recession and the failure to meet the guarantee of a YT place for all who want one.
During the debate, I was struck by the way in which the hon. Member for Fife, Central and other Opposition
Column 545Members have referred to the thousands of young people who are in the qualification category for a guaranteed training place but cannot get one.
Mr. Salmond : The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but those details have been offered for constituencies and in global figures. Those details have even been given by local enterprise companies in evidence to a House of Commons Committee. If the hon. Member has not bothered to read the detail on offer, there is little that we can do to educate him. Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that thousands of youngsters cannot get the training place which the Government originally guaranteed ?
Mr. Gallie : I dispute that. The Scottish Select Committee and I have been in touch with enterprise companies throughout the country and they advise us that a place is available for any youngster who wants to go on a youth training scheme. If all the places were taken up, there may not be enough, but places are certainly available on Ayrshire Enterprise for youngsters now applying.
Mr. Salmond : Every time the hon. Gentleman intervenes or makes a speech, he contradicts himself in the process. He should accept that a mountain of evidence shows that thousands of youngsters in Scotland cannot get training places. He says that if every youngster available for a training place wanted to take it up, there would be a shortage of places. He thereby admits that the devil's bargain struck by the Government when they withdrew benefits from 16 and 17-year-olds, on the basis that a training place would be available for everyone, has not been kept.
Mr. Kynoch : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not disagree with a fax that I received today from Mr. Bruce Armitage, director of training at Grampian Enterprise, about the enterprise company in the hon. Gentleman's area of Banff and Buchan, which has the highest number of youths undergoing skill seekers training of any district council. It says ;
"In holding a firm line on employment with training we have not experienced any Youth Guarantee difficulties. At the end of March 1994, we had only 12 young people awaiting an offer under the Youth Guarantee."
Will the hon. Gentleman respond to that ?
Mr. Salmond : I was making a general point. I am extremely pleased that youngsters in my constituency are finding things better than others elsewhere in Scotland. Unemployment in my constituency is lower than the Scottish average--it is rising fast now because of a number of factors in fishing and other industries--but it cannot be considered typical of the whole of Scotland, which is what we are meant to be debating.
In evidence given to the House of Commons by local enterprise companies, it was estimated that up to 9,000 youngsters in Scotland at that time-- admittedly, it was 1992--had not gained access to the training place which they were guaranteed.
Column 546Thousands of youngsters in Scotland have found the offer of a training place meaningless because a place has not been offered. Before those interventions, I was saying that the nub of the debate was whether a universal or a discretionary benefit was appropriate under those circumstances and I pointed to the massive growth in the number of people applying for severe hardship payments. Benefits Agency figures show that, in 1989, 10,609 successful applications were made for severe hardship payments in the UK and that, by 1992, that figure had risen to 77,906. There are two ways of looking at those statistics. First, one can argue that the severe hardship payment, which was originally a selective means of assistance and a discretionary benefit, has effectively become a safety net provision. For that reason, while the problem has not gone away, it has been ameliorated compared with a few years ago.
I hope that I am not doing the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North an injustice, but that was his basic argument. He was giving the Government too much credit because credit is not due. Clearly, tens of thousands of youngsters suffered when no effective safety net was in place. It can be argued that, because the severe hardship payment has become more than a temporary provision, some safety net is now in place. However, another way to look at the matter is to say that if the emergency and severe hardship payments have become a universal benefit, the argument for not having a universal benefit in the first place has been removed.
If we concede this point of principle on the issue of 16 to 17-year-olds, it will be replayed throughout the income support and social security system. If it is conceded that discretionary benefits can be fair to everyone and provide an effective safety net, we shall witness the end of the universal benefit system, not only for 16 and 17-year-olds, but for whole categories of the population. As I said earlier to the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch), who seemed to attribute qualities of self-reliance to people if benefits were withdrawn from them, it would be as appropriate to argue that of an adult Scot as it would be to argue it of a 16 to 17-year-old Scot. If he picks on the 16 to 17-year-olds--if that is the underlying argument behind the policy prescription that the Government are following--why not pick on a range of other groups of the population ?
My warning to those people who are not sympathetic to the argument in the motion would therefore be that if it is accepted that a selective discretionary benefit can provide an effective safety net for 16 to 17-year -olds, that argument will be replayed throughout the social security system, and sooner rather than later. It has been accepted, at least in some parts of the Labour Benches, that it is not a financial issue. The sums involved are minor in the global public finance sector. A philosophical question is at stake. It is argued by Conservative Members that youngsters, if given the option of a safety net, will accept that comfortable safety net and stay in their beds, as was said earlier, instead of going out into the big, bad, wide world and finding a career or training place. That argument underlies the Conservative party position.
The Labour party's position is that it cannot give a spending commitment on anything. Why not ?